Friends Select School teacher Francoise Thenoux worries about her students. How will they feel if she disappears from the classroom?
And what of her own life?
After 16 years in the United States, educating children, paying taxes, becoming part of the culture and the community, Thenoux, 45, faces an immigration crisis that could bring all of it to an end within weeks.
“My situation,” said Thenoux, a native of Chile who teaches Spanish at the elite Quaker school, is “hanging from a small thread of hope.”
Her American life is threatened by new Trump administration rules that restrict the ability of overseas professionals to enter or stay in the United States. Announced in the summer and fall, the rules are impacting thousands of workers as their visas expire and renewals become difficult or impossible.
The administration contends that granting visas to immigrant workers hurts the employment prospects for Americans, particularly during the record joblessness of the pandemic. But business leaders say the new regulations hinder their recruitment of specialty talent.
Now that conflict has come to Friends Select, a K-12 college-preparatory school on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and to a teacher who has been an advocate for immigrant, LGBTQ, and non-binary students.
With her visa set to expire at the end of this month and a new, different permission still being sought, Thenoux could find herself in limbo. Without work authorization, she won’t be able to teach. So even if she remains in this country, her salary and medical insurance will end, leaving her unable to support herself, or to send money to family members in Chile. At some point, that situation could dictate her departure.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said parent Dana Dorman, whose 9-year-old daughter has spent years learning Spanish from Thenoux. “She just loves her class, and the community that she’s built. … I’ve been so impressed over the years how supportive and caring Francoise is with her students.”
Dorman said Thenoux has gone beyond direct language instruction and immersed students in the cultures of Spanish-speaking lands around the world, helping them understand the different views of different people. Now her child is upset as word spreads of Thenoux’s situation.
“She’s an exceptional teacher,” said Friends head of school Michael Gary, “and she’s beloved by students and parents and colleagues.”
The school is doing all it can to support Thenoux and help her find a means to stay and teach, he said. But the federal immigration system isn’t likely to bend to the appeals of a single private school.
In Chile, Thenoux graduated from Universidad de La Serena after studying to become an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher. She first came to the United States in 2001, working for a year as an au pair in Indianapolis, and taking American literature and history courses at a community college.
She returned to Chile and taught for three years, after which she was accepted into a teacher-exchange program that brought her back to this country in 2005. She was hired at a private school in Atlanta, and then, having earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, she came to Friends Select in 2010.
She describes herself as an immigrant, a proud Chilean, and someone who after so many years here has become Americanized.
Visas for overseas workers are expensive and complex. They became more so this past summer when President Donald Trump signed an order to restrict foreign workers from using certain visas, which barred hundreds of thousands of foreigners from seeking employment in the United States.
Among the impacted were those who hold H-1B visas, which allow American companies to employ graduate-level workers in specialty occupations.
Thenoux’s H-1B visa expires this month. She has filed to stay and continue working under what’s called an H-1B1 visa, which allows specialty employment for people from Chile and Singapore.
But here’s the problem: In October, as part of its new rules, the Trump administration raised the minimums for “wage prevalence” — that is, how much immigrants must be paid compared with American workers in similar jobs.
Wage prevalence was originally conceived to prevent immigrants from being exploited. But the new, higher rates would price many foreign workers out of their jobs by requiring American companies to pay huge salary increases. For instance, in a lawsuit, the University of Utah cited an example where an H-1B worker earning $80,000 would have to be paid $208,000 under the new rules.
Both the H-1B visa, which Thenoux now holds, and the H-1B1 visa, which she’s seeking, fall under the new wage rules. Thenoux’s salary would need to increase about 40%, far above the market pay of a teacher.
This week, a federal judge in the District of Columbia issued a judgment against the wage rule. That came after a California judge agreed with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several universities that the government failed to follow transparency procedures by publishing the new rules only in October.
“This rule would have had a drastic impact on employers across every industry that relies on high-skilled foreign workers,” said Jeff Joseph, lead counsel in the Washington lawsuit and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The Trump administration has 60 days to appeal.
Judges’ rulings don’t instantly take effect across the breadth of the federal immigration system. And in the meantime, Thenoux’s H-1B visa nears expiration and the H-1B1 has yet to be approved — only 1,400 are available for Chilean nationals.
Thenoux won’t be deported. But there are many ways to make immigrants leave, such as cutting off their ability to work.
She has reached out to Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Dwight Evans for help. And she hopes she won’t need to say goodbye to families and colleagues at Friends Select.
“I love it there,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I want to stay. ... I feel Americanized, part of the grassroots movement that is making this country a more equitable place.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.